Friday, May 8, 2020

Bp. Mark of Philadelphia provides reopening guidance

This letter is long. It might be the longest set of directives I have yet seen not put out by a synod.

(OCA-DEPA) - Beginning the Discussion ---the Process to Open our Parishes. Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11: 14)

Dear Rev. Frs., esteemed members of the parish councils and faithful,

Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen! I pray you are all in good health and doing well. Let us pray for all who are infected with the coronavirus known and unknown, our healthcare workers, first responders and all who provide for the public welfare, as well as who are suffering adversity because of this virus. May the Lord grant rest and blessed repose to those whom the virus has taken from among us and all those who reposed in the Lord and were not given the fullness of our usual services. Let us especially remember those who lost loved ones and were denied the presence of their brothers and sisters in Christ during their time of grief. By the grace of God, we have had only seven people of our Diocese infected and only 3 known deaths. One was 74 years old with health issues and another was 94 years old. At this time, one hardly knows if someone dies from the virus, simply with the virus or merely had symptoms similar to the virus.

In evaluating the data, in one Pennsylvania county 100% of the deaths were in a nursing home. The percentages from Pennsylvania records and the CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL demonstrate how dangerous the virus is for certain segments our population, especially the elderly with comorbidities. A simple side by side comparison of DEATHS WITHIN A COUNTY ATTRIBUTED TO THE CORONAVIRUS with DEATHS ATTRIBUTED TO THE VIRUS WITHIN VARIOUS COUNTIES IN PERSONAL CARE HOMES AND NURSING HOMES have some of the following numbers: 65%; 80%, 88%, 50%, 72%, 73%, 80%, 56%, 65%, 80%, and 77% respectively. This information, as well as Rate of Infection by Age; Hospitalization Rates by Age Range to Date; County Case Counts to Date and COVID-19 Cases Associated with Nursing Homes and Personal Care Homes to Date, may be found on this website (see attachments) Hopefully, having actual data from the state will assist the faithful in making wise decisions for their personal health and discerning the actual level of risk.
As you may have read our clergy participated in several video conferences over the last few weeks, the last of which was earlier today. First and foremost as a way of doing a wellness check with the clergy, get a sense of how they were doing, as well as the faithful entrusted to their care. Given these video conferences, I can say without hesitation, the clergy who participated have a grasp of the complexity involved as each parish has its own unique situation. The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America also met via video conference to discuss the care of the faithful, directives and a way forward on various occasions, most recently, April 29th and May 01st.

The reaction to simply asking clergy and parish councils to begin putting a plan in place for their parishes, was perceived as premature and threatening for some. This underscores all the more how necessary it is to begin discussions within every parish about “how,” even before we talk about “when,” a parish will reopen. Hopefully, our clergy can begin to address the concerns, fears, anxieties, and trauma in the wake of the coronavirus in an informed way. I remember a year ago seeing a billboard along SR 33 which read, “ALL FEELINGS ARE VALID!” and laughing at how ridiculous a statement it was. There can be a great gulf between feelings and reality. Nevertheless, while we must be mindful of feelings, fears, and anxiety, we cannot as a Church be paralyzed by them. ‘He who fails to plans, plans to fail.’

The Federal Government provided “Guidelines OPENING UP AMERICA AGAIN,” for moving forward responsibly. The CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL published guidelines, the governors of Pennsylvania and Delaware also issued directives and guidelines and finally the Holy Synod issued a Pastoral Letter and SYNODAL DIRECTIVES Towards a Re-Opening of our Churches on May 01, 2020. All of these various documents are helpful, requiring prayerful discernment, careful reading, interpretation and application. The process to reopen will not be done unilaterally by any priest, parish council, parish or combination thereof. This is not the time for presumptive actions, wherein anyone is put at risk, especially as it may result in severe canonical consequences. Therefore, I will address each one. We have a challenge to be creative in addressing ‘how’ we move forward responsibly when the time is right, but we cannot use creativity as license for irresponsibility.

Let me affirm my commitment to protect the most vulnerable as best we can, while seeing our parishes opened as fully as is safely and responsibly feasible. I want to affirm my love for our clergy, their families, our parishes and the faithful. While we are One, as an Orthodox Church, every parish is unique in its own composition, age groupings, health issues, normative attendance, building design and size, which directly affects application of the various guidelines and requirements provided. One must also consider one’s proximity to the epicenters of the virus’ adverse effects. A “one size fits all,” approach is simply not feasible or practical, for the government, the Holy Synod or even the Diocese. Therefore, as we consider a path forward, we will do so with all these various policies and guidelines in mind, but realize that final discernment of their interpretation and applicability rests with the Bishop. If you have not done so, please ask you parish priest or council chair for the password for our online survey, REOPENING OUR PARISHES SURVEY, found at and take it as soon as possible. If this medium is unfamiliar to you, please ask your priest or parish council chair to send you a copy of the survey to complete and mail it back ASAP. This will help your priest in collaboration with your parish leadership to better prepare for the eventual reality of Liturgical services to resume in a responsible manner. A comprehensive plan of action must be submitted to the Diocesan Office for review and a blessing. We would like all surveys completed ASAP, as insufficient surveys will likely delay your priest and parish leadership in preparing adequately and delay the opening of the parish due to insufficient information.

FEDERAL and LOCAL GOVERNMENT --- First of all let me say that parishes in Pennsylvania and Delaware, in particular, and in the majority of states were not closed because of a state order. Nor were they closed by Federal order, either. The Holy Synod advised closing and/or limiting services for a variety of reasons, one of which was to be in concert with what the government was asking our country to do to flatten the curve and not overwhelm our healthcare systems. Flattening the curve was intended to allow for those infected as well as those who would eventually be infected to have adequate access to healthcare, not eliminate the virus. Further the intention was to safeguard our healthcare workers, first responders and others involved in caring for the elderly over this extended period of time. That being said, as neither the federal nor state governments told us to close we cannot and should not reasonably expect any direct governmental declaration specific to churches about our opening. They have respected our First Amendment Rights. Therefore, if the criterion for returning to the Church is based upon the Federal or State governments to tell us we can now return to our Churches, we would be waiting in vain.

Governmental concerns about the trajectory of the infection rate for specific areas must absolutely be heard and followed. We will look to their guidelines for direction to protect our faithful and surrounding communities keeping in mind the “Guidelines OPENING UP AMERICA AGAIN,” acknowledges discretion is required by the state, “State and local officials may need to tailor the application of these criteria to local circumstances (e.g., metropolitan areas that have suffered severe COVID outbreaks, rural and suburban areas where outbreaks have not occurred or have been mild). Basically, there is a recognition that places like New York City and Philadelphia, which were hit hard must be dealt with differently than areas less populated and were not affected to the same degree, as Williamsport, Mechanicsburg or even Uniondale.

If this reasonable caveat provided by our federal government is ignored, within our states, I am willing to listen to appeals from parishes adversely affected and consider moving ahead where the data does not support improper restrictions. Why? Because if the state is allowing other counties with more people infected people per 100,000 to have restrictions loosened, it does not make sense for a county with less infections per 100,000 to have tighter ones. Therefore, I am willing evaluate the trajectory and make decisions as appropriate to the actual demographics. Realistic plans require work, thinking, responsible creativity and sharpening the pencil. Even as I write law suits are being filed against state governments with the Supreme Court for abuse of power, unlawful seizure of assets and basically to apply reasonable discretion.

Even so, the metric in Pennsylvania for moving from RED (the severest restrictions) to YELLOW (less restrictive) is based upon the formula: A county will need to have a cumulative number of new infections less than 50 new cases per 100,000 people daily for 14 days. Wayne County, PA for example, is still considered RED, yet they have only had 104 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Northumberland County will remain Red, but only has 98 confirmed cases as of this date. We will certainly be watching each county’s infection rate for increases, but blanket declarations without the considerations provided for local discretion is not appropriate policy (see “Guidelines OPENING UP AMERICA AGAIN,” footnote on the page entitled, PROPOSED STATE OR REGIONAL GATING CRITERIA). Additionally, in the document, “Guidelines OPENING UP AMERICA AGAIN,” Phase One, SPECIFIC STYPES OF EMPLOYERS, LARGE VENUES it states, (e.g., sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues, places of worship) can operate under strict physical distancing protocols. Physical distancing (6’ between individuals of different households) is quite different from restricting numbers.

CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL --- The recommendations from the CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL on social distancing (6’ from other persons) with a limit of ten persons pertains more to small enclosed places. If a building safely accommodates larger numbers, there is absolutely prohibition for more than ten. We can still maintain 6’ of social distancing in our churches without being fixated on an inapplicable number. I do not want to come across as dismissive in any way of the CDC, governmental or Synodal guidelines. Interesting formulas have been suggested based upon square footage and the number of people. Please let us use common sense and understand sound judgment. If five people ride to church together from a single household, we are not going to make them sit 6’ apart once they enter the Church. The guidelines mentioned above are precisely that, guidelines. They provide vital advice and information for our protection and the overall welfare of the public’s health and safety. Yet, we need to be mindful of the spirit in which they were written and not bound by a misreading or inappropriate application. Let us keep in mind, ‘painting with a broad brush has its place and there are times for a very fine brush.’ A careful reading of the documents actually allows for adjustments based upon actual data. Please be at peace!

SYNODAL DIRECTIVES Towards a Re-Opening of our Churches --- The members of the Holy Synod are thoroughly aware of the complexities involved with reopening the parishes of their own respective Diocesan parishes. As mentioned above, we cannot move forward with a stilted perspective of ‘one size fits all,’ or ‘painting with a too broad a brush’. The Holy Synod fully recognizes each Bishop will need to make decisions based upon the unique situation of the respective state’s laws and mandates, where it is applicable and what is appropriate where and when. None of us claim to be Omni-competent. Even as your bishop, I realize, we cannot make one plan for the entire Diocese, to do so would be require us to look at the most severe situations and impose restrictions on the whole Diocese, which are markedly dissimilar.


Within our Diocese we have parishes that easily allow for social distancing and others that require creative approaches. I ask you to think resourcefully to address this unique and unprecedented situation. The clergy are to work with their parish councils or committees to examine their own unique situations. We must attempt to accommodate all who desire to attend, pray and receive the Holy Mysteries, while maintaining proper standards of social distancing, facial masks, hygiene, etc.

1. All clergy and parish councils must to begin the work of addressing what will need to be done when the parish can open its doors to whatever degree possible (This itself will be taxing spiritually, emotionally, physically and psychologically);

2. All clergy and parish councils must consider for the immediate allowance for people to simply come at designated times, to pray and light a candle, as our people desperately need the consolation of what is considered Sacred Space and Sacred Time. (An adequately appointed outdoor shrine is also encouraged as this possibility may also be added as well.);

3. Additional Liturgical services may need to be added to accommodate the more vulnerable or young families, as we proceed in the process. Live Stream or a monitor in a separate part of the facility to accommodate them may be needed;

4. The faithful must be educated on Christian charity toward those who may need to go in and out with children more frequently due to facial masks, restlessness, etc., rather than simply forbidding them to come. Alternately, young parents and small children could watch via live stream from the hall or a classroom. (Thank God they are there!);

5. Outdoor services when weather permits is a fully acceptable option as it is the practice during pilgrimages at many monasteries. Our goal must be to serve our people while keeping everyone safe. Proper precautions must remain in place

6. Each priest in collaboration with their parish council (or in the absence of an assigned Rector, the parish council in consultation were their Dean) must submit a plan for reopening their respective parish, in consideration of the following:

a. The current level of infection and the projected trajectory of the virus within their county and the level of restrictions placed upon the respective county (;

b. The CDC Guidelines for cleaning are to be followed and a plan developed;

c. The Holy Synod Directives are to be followed where applicable (If necessary, I am willing to participate in a Zoom Meeting at any point during this process);

d. Adequate responses to the RE-OPENING THE PARISH SURVEY from parishioners and concerns addressed within the competency of the priest and parish council. (The surveys are specifically intended to assist the priest and parish council in this process, therefore extraneous comments unrelated to the competency of the parish priest and parish council are not helpful). Admittedly, there are parishes where this information will be more vital to the process than others;

e. Posting of all necessary posters and website posters as provided by the Diocesan Office (We will make every effort to provide you posters via email with instructions on where to post.);

f. No parish will be compelled to open in a premature manner, but all parishes must begin discussion of a plan and submit it for approval in a timely manner (failure to do so on the part of a priest may be reasonably perceived as dereliction of duties by the faithful);

g. Information on Live Streaming must be made available, even if it is not from your own parish for those unable to attend regardless of the reason;

h. No one should be shamed or feel coerced to return before they can comfortably attend (Their reasonable concerns should be taken into consideration in developing a plan)

i. All priest over 65 and / or with major health concerns which place them at a higher risk, must request Hierarchical approval before serving, in accordance with the Synodal Directive;

j. Anyone who is currently sick or displaying symptoms of the coronavirus must be told to stay at home, graciously, lovingly, but without hesitation;

k. All parishioners will be required to wear a mask, a modest supply is suggested, Children up to 10 years old are exempt, however, those over 2 years of age are encouraged to do so if possible.;

l. Records must be kept regarding who attended each service in case there is an outbreak.


I. Live Streaming to a separate part of the facilities for families with young children who are resistant to masks or for the elderly;

II. Saturday or a weekday Liturgy for high risk persons and Sunday Liturgy for families with young children (Alternately, this could be rotated from week to week;

III. Parishes with limited space and larger numbers may need to consider the use of their parish hall for Divine Services, adding another day for at risk persons to attend or Live Streaming for persons who may not fit into the limited worship space, but still able to be present within the facility;

IV. Minimize parishioner contact with surfaces, e.g., a person or persons appointed to open doors for entry into the church. The doors from the Narthex to the Nave should be left open (MANDATORY, but alternate plans may be submitted);

V. Hand sanitizer must be provided in appropriate areas, i.e., entrances, elevators, etc. and supplies regularly checked (MANDATORY);

VI. Every parishioner must wear a mask, except the clergy who are serving and the choir (MANDATORY). Please by way of Christians limiting themselves for the sake of others, as St Paul instructs in Romans 14:1ff, let us not have strife over masks, but let everything be done in love and in consideration of others. “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Those under 2 years of age are exempt as it is medically contraindicated.);

VII. Choirs are to be moved to the front of the Nave and limited as social distancing dictates (MANDATORY). (This will minimize any contamination associated with Choir members projecting their voices over the top of other people. While choir members are not required to wear masks, they are to be mindful of not projecting too loudly or projecting towards another member of the choir);

VIII. Markers indicating proper distancing for Holy Communion (MANDATORY);

IX. Paper towels or Kleenex may be used instead of a communion cloths, held by the communicant and placed in a respectfully placed in a basket for burning (a new cloth must be used for each family household and properly hand washed between services);

X. Candles will be placed in the candle stands in advance for a designated person to light (alternate proposal will be considered);

XI. Windows are to be opened if possible to provide fresh air;

XII. Air Condition / Furnace Filters must be changed regularly. Dirty return air vents and dirty air supplies indicate dirt is being circulated and filters are not being changed according to manufacturer recommendations;

XIII. Offering baskets are not to be passed, a basket in front of the icon of Christ or another designated place;

XIV. Parish Websites and Social Media should instruct potential visitors from other parishes to follow proper protocol, by contacting the parish priest in advance to insure the parish is able to accommodate them and inquire about the disciplines temporarily mandated (A posting to this effect should be placed on your

XV. The clergy together with the parish council must develop a punch list of items to be addressed before and
after each service and designate who is responsible, e.g., verifying the church is cleaned, adequate hand
sanitizer remains at each location, hand soap supplies sufficient, etc.;

XVI. Utilization of ushers to maintain social distancing and while insuring space is maximized in parishes where
this could be problematic (We may need to let people know that someone may instruct them where to sit to maximize our ability to accommodate, therefore people may not be able to sit where they have always sat.)

Please forgive the length of the letter and directives. In no respect should this letter or any attachments be considered exhaustive. We are simply providing direction as each priest and parish council evaluates what needs to be done on the local level. I would ask that each of you be loving and patient with one another, giving your full cooperation for the good of the Church.

We have all been wounded in one way or another over the past two months. From our surveys I see there some who believe we do not need to follow any precautions, or less stringent precautions and others feel they are not strong enough. St Paul taught the Corinthian church a very basis Christian principle of being deferential to others in matters of conscience. Let us keep the words of the Apostle Paul ever before us from I Corinthians 10:23ff:

Do All to the Glory of God

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

I ask with tears, please let us strive for the greater good. Your unworthy father in Christ,
+ MARK, Archbishop of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania


  1. Well, thank you for this. Now we know the OCA will never be an option for us.

    1. Yes, Mariam. They have shown their true colors. Time to go elsewhere.

    2. Christ is risen!
      Don’t let the door hit you on the way out! Seriously, Bp. Mark shows real leadership and wisdom and you respond like this? I guess you really do belong elsewhere, in a church full of hotheads and freethinkers perhaps. Maybe speaking in tongues would suit, since good English carefully considered obviously bores you.

    3. Tell us Mariam, what was it in the end? The masks? Social distancing?

  2. Kudos bishop mark ,,,,nicely done ,,,, we all need to use the intelligence God had given us,,,,prudence is a mainstay of safety

  3. Sorry is you who left the Church if you support that nonsense. I have found a beautiful Orthodox Church that is Patristic...and has the phronema of Holy Orthodoxy. Your barage of insults shows where you belong.

  4. " a church full of hotheads and freethinkers perhaps..."

    This is right. This Wuhan pneumonia and the Church's prudent reaction to it has been a unveiling, showing us just than many in the Church in NA Orthodoxy carry a large weight of Individualistic and Protestant commitments. These are unexamined of course and people just assume they are traditional, even "Patristic", and the like.

  5. "This Wuhan pneumonia and the Church's prudent reaction to it has been a unveiling, showing us just than many in the Church in NA Orthodoxy carry a large weight of Individualistic and Protestant commitments."

    Amen. The Bishop's reaction to this virus was protestant in spirit. Their faith was guided by reason. In reality, a patristic response calls for reason guided by faith.

  6. Why are we so paranoid about Protestants? Is it that their charity and out reach out us to shame? Where is the closest eastern orthodox University? Where is the closest eastern orthodox hospital? We do not even have a wing at St Jude's,,,where is our version of Samaritans purse? We need to see reality, which we don't,,,we are like the Pharisees,,critics of all void of love and charity,,,but we are etnic ghettos,,,,God gave us many talents,,he gave us knowledge of science,,,we need to use this knowledge to keep our flock safe,,,,,this was known 2000 years ago when laws and directives as how to live were instituted ,,,many became canons,,now the playing field had changed and instead of being creative ( which is a talent), we react negatively and like a brat in a sand box,,,,oh you of little faith ,,,

  7. Settle down klancko. No one is criticizing good works. Even atheists can do good works. It is the theology of groups like protestants and Roman Catholics which is heretical....also the cult groups such as Freemasonry, Jehova Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists etc.

  8. There you go throwing stones again,,,,remember those heretics have called us heretics also,,,,how can we call ourselves Christian's if we spend our time judging and criticizing others,,,we need to look at ourselves first and clean up our act,,,we are not one church and do not have definition of ourselves,,,we are split over the calendar,,,we are split into ethnic ghettos,,,in the USA there needs to be one orthodox church,,no divisions,,,but we thrive on dissention and separatism yet we love to throw stones at others,,,even our own,,,it is down right shameful,,,no wonder our youth have left in droves

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  10. No stones Klancko. Defend them all you like. It will not stop them from being heretics.

    1. You will win the argument if you can show me one thing we have done that is the equivalent of the Shriners children's hospitals, or Franklin Graham's Samaritans purse,,,we throw stones and judge while they apply Christian principles of charity,,,I am embarrassed by our myopic actions and pharisitical actions,,,we orthodox forget what it means to be a Christian because to use Christian is the adjective and not the noun,,,for this is weep,,,,as st pogo said,,we have found the enemy and it is us,,,my God save us from ourselves

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